MICHEL ROUX JR
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Father and Sons ]
of the inalienable rules of family businesses is that sons
always want to do things differently from the way their
fathers did them, and fathers always insist on interfering
after they've 'officially' retired. Has this been true at
Le Gavroche? John Radford talked to Michel Roux jr.
No and no.' 'Well, perhaps a bit, and not as much now as at
first, and not necessarily.' What was the third question again?
Is he chasing the return of the third Michelin star? It's
a bit too complicated to explain in a few words, so we'll
return to it later and start at the beginning instead.
Albert Roux is known as 'Michel junior' to avoid confusion
with his uncle Michel (of The Waterside Inn) and it's just
as well that 'Michel senior' called his own son Alain and
not Albert as this would have been hopelessly confusing. Michel
junior was born in England in 1960, seven years before his
father and his uncle first established Le Gavroche,
and he thinks he was always destined to cook. Certainly his
education was steered that way pretty effectively from the
age of sixteen, when he was apprenticed to Maitre Patissier
Hellegouarch in Paris. Patisserie, as many great chefs will
tell you, is the best way to start in the cookery business.
In terms of selection of ingredients, the basic disciplines
of cooking and attention to detail in the finished dish, it
is almost a microcosm of the culinary arts, and Michel, like
his father and uncle, still admits to a love of
working with pastry.
three years, having learned the basics in Paris, he worked
under his father in the kitchen of (the original) Le Gavroche
for six months as a lowly commis de cuisine, leaving just
before his twentieth birthday for a two-year stint with the
legendary Alain Chapel at his eponymous hotel and restaurant
in Mionnay, in the Rhone-Alpes region of France. Michel admits
that Chapel was one of the most significant influences on
his style and work, and that these were the formative years
of what he has been able to achieve since.
was back to London and (the new) Le Gavroche at the
beginning of 1982 for three months, learning his way around
the new kitchen before military service intervened. Michel
spent this (as did his cousin Alain, now at The Waterside
Inn) cooking at the Elysee Palace in Paris during the tenure
of Presidents Valerv Giscard d'Estaing and Francois Mitterand
- the French armed forces are as serious about cookery as
everybody else in France, but it does make you wonder what
he'd have cooked up for the troops if he'd ever been called
out on active service. After ten months serving up staff meals
and working on the odd state banquet, Michel spent March and
April of 1983 learning about meat at the famous Gerard Mothu
in St-Mande in the Paris banlieu, before extending his knowledge
for a further three months with one of the most respected
in Paris: Boucherie Lamartine on the Avenue Victor Hugo.
this time Michel had been schooled in most aspects of food
and cookery but, just for good measure, he spent August of
1983 working for Finlay Robertson Chartered Accountants in
London, to make sure that he also had some idea of what's
involved in balancing the books.
first 'senior' post came next: five months as sous-chef at
Gavvers, the restaurant which had been the original Le
Gavroche, but there was still more to learn. In January
1984 he moved to La Tante Claire in Chelsea, going back to
the rank of commis but working with one of London's greatest
chefs, Pierre Koffmann. He stayed there until August and spent
the rest of the year at the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong -
one of the world's most luxurious hotels and now known as
the Mandarin Oriental.
returned to England at the beginning of 1985 and spent the
next four months working with his Uncle Michel at The Waterside
Inn in Bray. In May 1985 he turned 26 and, you might think
was ready to take on a bit more responsibility in the kitchen.
Indeed he was, but not yet at Le Gavroche. At that
time the Roux brothers - Albert and Michel sr. - had a small
catering empire which included not only The Waterside Inn
and Le Gavroche but also Gavvers, Le Poulbot, Rouxl
Britannia and Le Gamin as well as contract-catering and specialist
patisserie companies. Michel jr worked as chef there for five
years, coping with the financial, management, logistic and
culinary deadlines inherent in such a business, during which
time he had more then enough opportunity to experience almost
everything that the restaurant business can throw in the way
of a chef-
1990 Albert turned 55 and decided that, perhaps, it was time
for his son to take 'over the reins at Le Gavroche.
This coincided with a restructuring of the Roux 'empire',
with the peripheral business being sold and Michel Sr. taking
over sole ownership and responsibility for The Waterside Inn,
whilst Albert did the same at Le Gavroche. So finally,
at the age of just 31, Michel Albert Roux became chef de cuisine
in place of his father.
were big boots to fill' says Michel. 'And my style of cookery
is different from that of my father.' He describes Albert
as being the archetypal 'classical-bourgeois' chef: very traditional
but, 'of course, he was trained in a different era, and London
in 1967 - or 1977 or even 1987 - was a very different place
from a restaurant point of view compared with today'. Michel
wanted to be a bit more inventive - to offer something new
as well as the classic dishes which had made the restaurant
famous without sacrificing any of the quality; to make the
service more 'client-friendly' without losing its professionalism
or efficiency. Did Albert approve?
still eats here regularly', says Michel, 'and he always says
exactly what he thinks. These days, he has a bit less to say
than he used to. . . .' And what about the stars, those coveted,
gold-plated Michelin stars? They are not, of course, awarded
to the restaurant, they are awarded to the chef, and when
a chef changes restaurants - or a restaurant changes chefs
- the inspectors come again and often to see whether and how
things have changed. In the event, three stars became two
- still a pretty good accolade for a chef in his early thirties,
and Michel is perfectly relaxed about that.
stars can be like cooking in handcuffs.' He says - the discipline
of maintaining exactly the same standards in exactly the same
dishes can become very boring. He likes to experiment, and
the Michelin inspectors get very worried about that, but with
two stars he can continue the gentle evolution in what Le
Gavroche does without frightening away loyal customers.
'I want to delight them and surprise them, but it has to be
done with the guarantee of quality which people have come
to expect of Le Gavroche.'
there's the clientele: Michel disparages the food-anoraks
who go to all the three-starred restaurants in the world 'just
to get their passport stamped so they can say they've been.'
Rather like his father Albert at the Cafe Roux in Amsterdam
Michel wants a restaurant which is busy, full of people who
are there for the love of good food and wine and who will
come and enjoy again.
how important is the 'Frenchness' of Le Gavroche? Vitally
important, says Michel. Twenty, even ten years ago there was
a 'French' restaurant on almost every street corner in London.
In 2001 they're almost an endangered species, but those which
have survived are the ones which never compromised on what
they did and maintained that guarantee of quality which is
the most important factor in the reputation of a restaurant
or, indeed, any other type of business. But, of course, there
have been difficult times in the recent past. The recession
of 1989 to 1994 saw restaurants queuing up to jump into the
well of oblivion as diners stayed at home in droves. What
happened at Le Gavroche?
don't claim to be recession-proof, but if you offer value,
and if you never compromise that value, and if your customers
know that it's absolutely certain that when they come it will
be just as good as it always was, then you can survive. We
had some quiet nights, but not too many.'
41, Michel has a ten-year-old daughter called Emily, and I
asked whether she was showing any signs of interest in becoming
the third generation of the Roux family to go into the kitchen,
but apparently, so far, she has expressed more of an interest
in eating than cooking, which is probably a very healthy attitude.
And what of Michel's own future? Does he see himself on the
range at Upper Brook Street for ever? Well, no, he says he
thinks he might like to do something different although it's
not likely to be very far from cooking. Indeed, given Albert's
consultancy work and Uncle Michel's burgeoning career as a
writer, there's probably a lot of opportunity and, in any
case, there's still a lot of work to be done at Le Gavroche
. . .
. . . Such as getting that third star? Handcuffs or not, it's
a copper-bottomed calling-bird for new customers. He smiles
and shrugs: 'if they offer it, of course I'm not going to
say no, but I'm not actively going for it.'
if they offer it, and you say yes, and then they take it away
a year later because you've been too - experimental for their
conservative tastes? 'Easy come, easy go.'
is obviously a new definition of the word 'easy' that I haven't
published in Vivace [a way of life]
article has been published with the kind permission of Michel
Roux jr of Le Gavroche. Le Gavroche is one of
the UK's finest restaurants. Its opening in 1967 by brothers
Albert and Michel Roux marked the revolution of restaurants
in London. Since then, Le Gavroche has continued to
set the standards of cooking and service by which other places
are judged - it was the first UK restaurant to be awarded
one, two then three Michelin Stars.
the reputation of Le Gavroche continues to ride high
in the eyes of critics and customers and now firmly rests
on the food prepared by Michel Roux Jnr who took over the
day to day running of the kitchen from his father, Albert,
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